Blog Future Work Report

5 Reasons Non-profits Should Embrace Distributed Working

Some (but not all) of the organizations pursuing the widest range of innovative working practices seem to be software or web-related firms. Buffer, Automattic, Treehouse and Lullabot spring to mind, but there are many others, and that’s not a huge surprise, since these firms work in a virtual world where their raw materials, and the labour and the delivery of their products all happen digitally. They also have a predominantly younger set of employees, who are comfortable both with the technology of remote working, and also with a philosophy that doesn’t define work as showing up at a physical location and being told what to do.

But many non-profit organizations would also see a great range of benefits from adopting similar approaches, and in many ways non-profits have more to gain from these measures, including helping to attract smarter people and allowing them to do more while spending less money.

Let’s look at some of the key reasons non-profits should be in the vanguard of these future work approaches:

1) Attract and retain better employees

If you can’t pay top dollar, then you need other ways attract talented employees. Offering them a flexible and/or completely distributed working environment can be a great draw, as can self-managing teams. Especially for younger people, the appeal of no commuting, increased autonomy, generous vacation time and other thoughtful benefits can outweigh purely monetary gains, especially if they will also be working on something they consider worthwhile.

For the non-profit, the ability to recruit from a global talent pool rather than one limited by geography can mean they get the best person for the job, not just the least bad candidate in their town.

2) Lower overhead

For better or worse (and it’s often worse), funders look carefully at non-profits’ operating expenses, especially as they compare to the amount they put into their programs. There’s a strong case to be made that this can be very short-sighted: if my expenses are $1,000 and I raise $20,000 for my programs, is that really better than if my expenses are $3,000 and I used that extra expenditure to raise $500,000? That said, there’s no doubt that a commitment to reduce unnecessary overheads can funnel more money towards programs and development. The cost of running an office is increasingly becoming an expensive and unnecessary overhead.

3) Lower carbon footprint

If your non-profit works in the environmental arena (but even it if doesn’t), you should make sure you’re causing as little environmental damage as you can while doing your work. In the same way as investors and consumers are increasingly interested in a company’s corporate social responsibility, so foundations and individual donors are looking to non-profits to do the right thing in all their dealings, not just their core mission.

Making people commute to work increases greenhouse gas emissions from transportation (unless everyone is riding their bikes or driving a solar-charged Tesla), but the biggest source of emissions for most organizations is their building itself. In the US, building operations (which includes heating, lighting, cooling, running the computers) areresponsible for nearly half of all CO2 emissions. And that doesn’t factor in the embodied carbon in the materials used to construct the buildings in the first place.

Some nonprofits take this issue seriously — the Packard Foundation have a great zero-net energy headquarters that generates all the energy it uses — but others would better not to have an office at all. We all need a place to rest our heads, but having a completely separate place to do work that we could do at home is environmentally hard to justify.

4) Flexible working forces better management

It’s harder to run a nonprofit than a commercial organization. This is partly because of the misguided efforts to cut operating expenses explored above, which leave most organizations understaffed and overworked, but also because of the unique challenges that non-profits face. Their goals are often harder to measure, and their teams and boards expect much more consensus-building than more traditional top-down companies have to deal with.

The detailed communication and clear procedures that distributed teams and self-management require can provide a much more solid basis for success in this context than the more usual death-by-a-hundred-meetings management style seen in non-profits.

5) Progressive organizations should work progressively

By their very nature, most non-profits are working to make the world a better place. They see the current situation as flawed, and want to improve it. It’s ironic then that this aspirational approach in many cases doesn’t extend to how they plan to bring about this change. There’s something wrong if you’re aiming towards the future, but doing so in an old-fashioned way. Progressive organizations should be the first to consider new ways of working, rather than not even thinking about how they do things.

If I were a foundation looking to fund a non-profit or one of its programs, I’d be looking for evidence that the non-profit was carefully examining and reflecting on not just what its mission was, but on how it was going to achieve it. Which includes considering how to express its values through the way it works.

And non-profits don’t have to be a distributed team to reap some of these benefits. For example, a recent job advertisement from the MacArthur Foundation for a Director of People and Culture clearly shows they are asking good questions about how they want their organization to succeed.

If other non-profits started addressing their working practices with a similar bravery and imagination, the sector could achieve so much more, which would benefit everyone.